Stravinsky’s ‘Psalms,’ headline December Symphony & Chorus concert


The La Jolla Symphony & Chorus (LJS&C) presents the second concert of its 62nd season, Dec. 3-4, showcasing two very different approaches to the symphony. Music Director Steven Schick conducts the orchestra and chorus in Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and orchestra in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.

The program also includes the premiere of Thomas Nee Commission winner Kevin Zhang’s “new true mirrors, furrowed, flooded, extended quite far,” and Iranian-American composer Gity Razaz’s “In the Midst of Flux.”

Stravinsky wrote the choral masterwork “Psalms” in 1930 for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Stravinsky’s choral symphony was one of a series of new works BSO’s Music Director, Serge Koussevitzky, commissioned to commemorate the occasion. (That set of commissions, which produced works by Hindemith, Prokofiev, Copland and others in addition to Stravinsky, is the most impressive in the history of music.)

When his commission arrived, Stravinsky had been thinking of composing a large-scale instrumental and vocal work. He turned to the Old Testament and set text of Psalms, sung in Latin. Stravinsky gave equal prominence to the chorus and orchestra in his composition, and made some unusual decisions about instrumentation to give the symphony its unique sound. First, he eliminates violins, violas and clarinets from the orchestra to intensify the music’s “archaic” sound. He also includes two pianos and a harp, using them percussively to create the symphony’s characteristic “pointilistic” sonority.

“It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung,” he said. “On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.”

Kevin Zhang, a Ph.D. composition candidate under Roger Reynolds at UC San Diego, has had his music performed in music festivals in Europe, Puerto Rico and the United States. His latest work, “new true mirrors, furrowed, flooded, extended quite far,” commissioned by LJS&C, sets select text from “The Book of Thousand Eyes” by Lyn Hejinian. The music consists of four interwoven recursive canons plus a lullaby. Scored for the same unique instrumentation as the Stravinsky, Zhang adds a treble choir and two solo violins, featuring LJS&C co-concertmasters David Buckley and Peter Clarke.

Gity Razaz’s music has earned numerous national and international awards. “In the Midst of Flux” (2009) is her first piece for large orchestra. It won the Libby Larsen Prize in the 28th International Search for New Music, along with several other accolades. The piece is rich and textural, with long linear lines in the strings and shimmering use of winds, brass, piano and percussion, dancing in and out of tonality. Born in Iran in 1986, Razaz moved to the U.S. as a young adult. She attended The Julliard School on a full scholarship, earning a bachelor’s and master’s in music composition.

Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral,” was completed in 1808 and is one of his few containing programmatic content. Each movement is headed by a descriptive title that seems to tell a “story” — the arrival in the country, impressions beside a brook, a peasants’ dance interrupted by a thunderstorm, and a concluding hymn of thanksgiving once the storm has passed. Some have claimed that romantic music begins with the Pastoral Symphony.

Written in classical form, Beethoven said this work is “more the expression of feelings rather than a painting,” and leaves listeners “to imagine the composer’s intentions.” Though less fiery than his 5th Symphony, composed the same year, the 6th aims at the same feeling of transcendence.

If you go: The concerts begin 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, in Mandeville Auditorium at UC San Diego. Tickets are $29 general, $27 senior and $15 student. Parking is free. A pre-concert lecture by Schick is offered one hour prior. (858) 534-4637.